At Home on the Mountain
At 1,753 feet above sea level amid a thick blanket of wet snow sits a small, unassuming shack at the top of Tussey Mountain in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Plastic flamingos and other unexpected decor dot its exterior. A speaker, attached to the outside, plays music as skiers and snowboarders disembark from the chairlift and prepare to make runs down the mountain.
The inside of the shack is just as modest: a table, a smattering of mismatched chairs, some more flamingos, snow gear and first aid equipment. This shack, appropriately dubbed the Flamingo Roost, is home to the Tussey Mountain Ski Patrol.
The men and women of ski patrol oversee the mountain. Their charge is to ensure that Tussey’s seven trails and 38 skiable acres are free of hazards and to assist visitors with routine skiing and snowboarding injuries, such as sprains and strains, broken bones, lacerations or concussions. They are the first on the mountain and the last off.
“People don’t realize we’re not the police, even though we are called ski patrol,” says Mike Yukish, a 13-year member of the ski patrol. “Our job is to support the customers, take care of them when they are injured, and keep the slopes safe for them.”
But this shack is more than a place for patrollers to warm up on bitterly cold days and nights. The roost, as patrollers refer to it, is home away from home. And their fellow ski patrollers are not simply colleagues, they’re family. And this family likes to learn together, laugh together, and serve together.
Binding the Team Together
Atop the mountain on a brisk Saturday in late December stands Joe Horvath, wearing layer upon layer of ski gear, some of which is held together by duct tape. He is one of Tussey Mountain’s hill captains, the person in charge of the mountain as well as the ski patrol’s policies and responses to accidents during his allotted shift.
There are about 40 members of the Tussey Mountain Ski Patrol — mostly volunteers — who make up Tussey’s five nightly teams and the paid patrollers who oversee the mountain during the day. They range in age from 15 to more than 70 years old. When they are not responding to an incident on their shift, which is about five hours long, patrollers spend their time skiing, hanging out in the roost, or taking a shift in the first aid building at the foot of the mountain. Each nightly team has between six and eight patrollers.
Horvath’s team works on Thursday nights.
“We stabilize, package and transport patients from very difficult environments in all sorts of weather,” Horvath says. “Anywhere you have ski mountains, you are going to have people who get hurt and need to be transported to the proper medical facilities. We are the emergency medical services for that type of environment.”
To become a member of the ski patrol, one must make a serious commitment, which includes hours of training that can last up to three ski seasons. Training topics include outdoor emergency care, CPR/AED training, toboggan handling as well as high angle-low angle rope rescue training, which is used to rescue people stranded on a chair lift. At that point, patrollers have met the standards of the National Ski Patrol, of which the Tussey Mountain patrollers are members.
“Tussey has a cadre of trained personnel who have been certified as instructors by the National Ski Patrol,” Horvath says.
Morgan Lang has been coming to Tussey Mountain since she was 5 years old. She joined ski patrol when she was in high school and has been a patroller for seven years.
“Everybody here is a volunteer. So being the hill captain, I want to make this fun so you want to come out. We are constantly training and keeping our skills up, and we do it in a nice, friendly learning environment. And no matter what the weather is out there, whether it is rain, sleet or snow, we have a ball when we come here.” —Joe Horvath
“I help out year-round at Tussey. It is like a second family to me,” Lang says. “I love the outdoors and helping others get outdoors and stay outdoors longer.”
Lang is easy to spot on the slopes. She is the only woman patroller who currently snowboards. She says when an accident occurs, the patroller closest to the scene responds and reports it to the hill captain via handheld radio.
“We are constantly working as a team, and you come to rely on your team members heavily,” Lang says. “When an accident presents itself, everyone just falls into a place. It’s a beautiful thing, seeing everyone perform the steps so quickly and smoothly.”
According to Horvath, when ski patrol goes to the scene of an accident, everyone knows his or her role. One person supports the patient. One person gets necessary equipment. One person ensures that the path they’ll take to the bottom of the mountain is ready.
“It’s like clockwork,” Horvath says. “That’s the beauty of esprit de corps and training coming together.”
“That is something that Joe [Horvath] is known for around here,” Newman says.
Being former military, “esprit de corps,” the bond members of a group share, is not just a phrase Horvath says, it’s one in which he believes. With 25 years of ski patrol under his belt, Horvath understands that training and skill-building are essential for patrollers, but they are not the only important factors. There also has to be some team building and fun. For Tussey’s ski patrol, this includes family-style dinners on top of the mountain.
“Dinner is the coming together of the group,” Horvath says.
Each Thursday evening, his team hauls all of the essentials to the top of the mountain. This includes their skis, poles and first aid gear as well as their crockpots with entrees, bowls of salad, drinks and sides. Outside of the roost, their skis and poles are stationed at the ready. Inside, they sit shoulder to shoulder, garbed in winter gear while dining together, laughing and awaiting the call that will spring them into action.
“I help out year-round at Tussey. It is like a second family to me. I love the outdoors and helping others get outdoors and stay outdoors longer.” —Morgan Lang
“We bring everything up to the top of the mountain because it is much easier for us to respond to an accident from the top of the mountain rather than the bottom,” Horvath says. “The bottom of the mountain is no place for ski patrollers unless they are dropping off a patient.”
Awards are another fun ski patrol tradition that Horvath uses to build up his team. He likes to playfully tease his comrades with silly awards at the end of the year, which he contends have humor akin to Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and South Park.
For example, one patroller was very big on the Second Amendment, Horvath says.
“One year, I found an old helmet, painted it black, and glued two toy guns to the side of the helmet,” he says. “And I turned the helmet into the ‘National Ski Patrol Second Amendment Helmet’ and gave it to him.”
“Some awards people look forward to getting. Others they dread. But the committee is always out there looking for candidates — a committee of one,” he says with a smile, pointing to himself.
Ski patrol also hosts the Patroller Extreme Games at the end of the season. It’s a competition between the different nightly teams that includes relay races and toboggan runs to see which team has the ultimate skiers.
But all of the fun and games aren’t just fun and games; they are essential tools to building a cohesive team.
“Everybody here is a volunteer. So being the hill captain, I want to make this fun so you want to come out,” Horvath says. “We are constantly training and keeping our skills up, and we do it in a nice, friendly learning environment. And no matter what the weather is out there, whether it is rain, sleet or snow, we have a ball when we come here.”
Chad Spackman is on the Tuesday night team. He has been a patroller for 25 years.
“No matter what night you’re on, the team becomes a family to you,” says Spackman, who seconds the idea that all of the camaraderie helps solidify the teams and helps them work together closely and more efficiently when duty calls.
Ted Hovermale is the ski patrol director, overseeing the operations and the administrative needs of the patrol. Although he doesn’t work on the mountain much anymore, he has been the director for more than 20 years and is an outdoor emergency care instructor.
He says that ski patrol is a great opportunity for anybody who loves skiing, helping people, and has an interest in emergency medicine.
“Being able to help people when they’re in need and, once they’re taken care of, seeing them return to skiing is a positive,” Hovermale says. “What’s in it for you is the satisfaction of helping somebody in need and providing a service to them.”
Newman has been skiing since he was a kid. He’s passionate about the outdoors, has worked as a ranger in national parks and is now a professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State.
“I love the idea of community service,” Newman says. “I think Tussey offers an amazing way to enjoy the winter, and if I can volunteer my time to help in all of these areas, I am more than happy to do so.”
That’s a common feeling for members of the Tussey Mountain Ski Patrol, a positive organization filled with people who like to serve others and laugh a lot. At a moment’s notice, they can be summoned to the scene of an accident in terrible weather to help a person they may not even know. And they do it with skill and smiles because for them, it is more than a job.
Betty Harper, an eight-year veteran of ski patrol, sums it up well.
“Tussey feels sort of like Cheers, a mountain where everybody knows your name,” Harper says. “I know that I will see many of my friends at Tussey and get to spend most of my day skiing with them. It certainly feels like home.” •SCM